ESPN To Test 1080p During NBA Game on Sunday

It is no secret that ESPN has been eying the 1080p format for at least two years. This Sunday, the ESPN research and development team is putting pixels to displays during a side-by-side shootout of 720p and 1080p cameras at the Staples Center to find out just how much of an improvement 1080p offers over 720p. The test will take place during the NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.

ESPN VP of Event Operations Chris Calcinari says two Sony HDC-1500 cameras outfitted with Canon 86x lenses will be used for the test, one shooting at 720p and the other at 1080p. Both camera feeds will be isolated and recorded and viewed on Sony 60-in. 1080p displays. In addition, the signals will be sent back to ESPN’s Digital Center in Bristol, CT, via the ESPN Net.

“We will see if the resolution upgrade is significant enough to start delving into 1080p,” says Calcinari.

SVP of Technology Kevin Stolworthy says the 10-GB redundant pipe (overall 20-GB) between ESPN’s L.A. Broadcast Center and the Digital Center in Bristol will transport the 3-GB 1080p signal as well as the 1.5-GB 720p signal.

“There are times when the 10-GB pipe isn’t full and we can do projects and tests like this,” says Stolworthy. “But we are just in the R&D phase with this, and there is no pressure.”

Game Creek Video is also playing a key role in the production, providing the 3G-capable truck and the 3G Sony switcher.

“Sony has been great, providing the two monitors,” adds Calcinari. “And we’ve been working closely with Game Creek as they have been building trucks with this goal in mind.”

No additional 1080p tests are scheduled, but, if this one is successful, that could change. There are plenty of good reasons to consider 1080p. Both interlace and progressive broadcast signals can be easily derived from a 1080p signal, and it is much more future-proof than 720p. It also can bring sharper resolution to “zoom-in” looks at replays and other playback options.

But there is still much work to be done. More production tools need to become 1080p-capable, and compression technologies have to catch up.

“This is a very long-term project and won’t happen overnight,” says Calcinari. “But, if we ever get to full-on 1080p productions, their end quality will be higher, even if it is downconverted to 720p.”

ESPN affiliates have yet to ask for 1080p content, but there are some good reasons for asking in the next couple of years. Consumer-electronics companies are pretty much standardized on 1080p TV sets, and, as Internet-delivered video content hits those screens, cable operators may be looking for a high-bandwidth experience that simply can’t be delivered over broadband pipes. A combination of 1080p and 3D services may just keep subscribers on board.